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How to Make Traditional Korean Kimchi

What do fermented foods and Melt® Organic buttery spreads have in common? They make me feel GREAT from the inside-out, but for very different nutritional reasons. Fermenting (pickling) foods brings out the wondrous child within me. I love watching sauerkraut transform from raw, shredded cabbage to a tangy probiotic superfood full of complexity and character.

I have used Kitchen Wench Ellie Won’s recipe and techniques below, with personal interpretation added. Thank you Kitchen Wench!

There must be a thousand ways to make kimchi, with variations that include using dried shrimp, bok choy instead of Napa cabbage, carrot, and many others, but a few standard concepts seem to filter out:

1. Korean chili powder (gochugaru) CANNOT be replaced with hot chili flakes. Gochugaru peppers are far less spicy than our red pepper flakes with a much brighter color. Much higher quantities of gochugaru are used than hot chili flakes. Because gochugaru lacks some of the palate-numbing capsaicin, the true flavor of the chilies shines with a brightness, richness, fruitiness and robustness all at the same time.  To summarize: it is not traditional kimchi if it doesn’t have gochugaru and so it’s worth the effort to obtain it. If you do not have an Asian market in your area you can order it online very easily from Amazon.com.

2. Fish sauce is essential for both the traditional flavor and, I suspect, as the innoculant for fermentation. It’s the secret ingredient that makes Thai curries so amazing and delicious. Fish sauce is available in most grocery stores.

3. The target flavor profile is tangy, spicy, and slightly sweet.

Ingredients and Instructions

(adapted from Ellie Won)

1 large head Napa cabbage, or 2 smaller heads (I used about 3 lbs)

1 ½ cups salt

1 cup Korean chili powder (gochugaru), not hot chili flakes

1 rounded tbsp rice starch powder (I used tapioca starch powder with success – this is the only substitution I made)

½ cup fish sauce

2 tbsp white sugar

6 spring onions/scallions, washed and sliced on an angle into slices about 1-2” long

5 cloves garlic, crushed

1 knob ginger, peeled

¼ nashi/Asian pear, cored and peeled

¼ brown onion, peeled

~ ½ lb white/Chinese radish, long and white not small, round and pink-tinged, peeled

***1 pair latex gloves***

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  • Clean and sanitize kitchen surfaces; the cleaner your environment the better. Clean and sanitize the equipment (fermentation jar, weights) to ensure the absence of pathogenic bacteria. Be sure to rinse off the equipment after sanitizing it so doesn’t kill off the beneficial bacteria needed for fermentation.
  • Cut cabbage into quarters, and carve most of the core out. You want to keep enough of the core intact so the leaves are still attached. This is important for later steps.
  • Combine about 1 quart of water with ½ cup salt into a large bowl and plunge the cabbage quarters one at a time. I used a little boiling water to dissolve the salt first, then added cold water to achieve a luke warm temperature. Carefully separate the leaves of each cabbage segment layer by layer; make sure that you get the salted water right to the base of the leaves. This is also a good time to check for debris.
  • Drain the water from the cabbage segments. With the cabbage segment on its back (outer leaves on the counter), gently separate the leaves layer by layer and flick a light layer of salt over each leave with special care to get more salt towards the thick, white base rather than the green leafy end. The motion is similar to spreading flour on the counter before rolling out pie crust. Only use the amount of salt that is needed to layer salt on all of the leaves – you are not under any obligation to use a full cup of salt; I ended up using a little more.
  • Place the cabbage leaves in a large bowl and leave covered for 4-6 hours or until the cabbage is floppy enough so that the leaves can be bend over, but still make a crisp “snapping” noise when snapped.
  • Rinse the wilted cabbage segments in clean water at least twice to remove salt, then squeeze as much water out of the cabbage as humanly possible (yes, squishing the cabbage is perfectly alright and it can take the abuse); leave the cabbage segments in a strainer for another 15-30 minutes to drain the last of the water out. ***If you are not careful to thoroughly rise the salt out of the cabbage segments, your kimchi will be a salty nightmare. I used my large mixing bowl to submerge the segments so I could thoroughly flush out the salt.***
  • The sauce can be made while you are waiting for the cabbage to wilt. I made mine while my cabbage was wilting so it could sit out on the counter (covered), which allowed the flavors to marry. Combine 1 heaping tbsp of glutinous rice powder with ½ cup water in a pot, stir vigorously and continuously over a low heat until the mixture has turned white and has a very thick consistency like rubber cement or glue. I used tapioca starch powder because that was all I could find and it worked very well. This was the only substitution I made to this recipe.
  • Let the rice powder glue cool down completely. While it is cooling down, use a food processor to blend the garlic, ginger, nashi/ Asian pear, brown onion, and diakon radish into a pulpy liquid. (Leave the scallions for now, they are added later and not included in this blend).
  • Once the rice powder glue is completely cool, stir in the chili powder (gochugaru), sugar, and fish sauce.
  • With latex gloves on (!), use your hands to combine all of the ingredients (scallions, chili/ fish sauce, and pear/daikon radish mix) in a mixing bowl until thoroughly mixed together.

  • Lay out the wrung out cabbage and coat the front and back of each and every leaf with this chili paste, making sure that each layer is well coated on the front and back, not missing any areas, bits, or pieces.
  • Once all of the cabbage has been thoroughly coated, press down the cabbage segments into an airtight container and store in a cool, dark place for 3 days to aid the fermentation process.  I like to use a gallon glass jar with an airlock, since I make sauerkraut regularly and it makes the sanitation of fermentation practically dummy proof; it also cuts down on the smell. Taste after 3 days and if the cabbage tastes tangy, soft but with some crunch and spice, then bottle up in mason jars and store in your refrigerator. These can be stored for up to 3 months if it lasts that long!

Side note: My kimchi fermented at the same temperature I ferment sauerkraut, between 68 to 72 degrees F for 3 days. You may have to experiment on the fermentation time that works for you. If it’s very warm, 24 hours may be all that it takes, if it’s cooler, then it will take longer. Some go for 5 days or even 10 days. You will have to experiment to see what tastes the best for you.

3 Days Later…
I just cracked open my vessel of bubbling kimchi… oh my, this is a wonderful success! It certainly isn’t bland, texture food like your mom or grandmom cooked to death: this kimchi is tangy, spicy, slightly sweet, with a very rich, robust flavor. I am eating it right now with steamed beans that my husband just cooked up. The kimchi makes a complex, flavorful, highly nutritious condiment on just about anything from steamed vegetables to refried rice to whatever your imagination can come up with. I definitely recommend this recipe. With experimentation you can perfect the amount of spiciness and tanginess that is just right for you and do your body a huge favor eating lacto-fermented foods. Bon Appetit!

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